He's been called a menace and a misfit. He still scorns the pop mainstream: "It's toothpaste." He writes off American radio: "It's not even music, it's wallpaper." But now meet the new Elvis Costello. He wants his songs to have "heart," "compassion," "humility." Compulsively self-critical, he faults some of his early work for being too "smug," "clinical," "narrow-minded." He worries that his recent material — capped by Imperial Bedroom, his breathtaking new album — may have "lost some of the edge that bloody-mindedness gives you." But he wants, above all, to break with that old bloody-mindedness: "It's easy to become trapped in an image which seems to have been tailored for you, somewhat by your own doing, somewhat by circumstances. I was trapped by this aggressive image."
It's been five years since Costello first burst into view as the new wave's angriest young man. Since then, he's composed and recorded nearly 100 songs in a protean range of styles: bare-knuckled rock, baroque pop, tender ballads, bluesy laments, Nashville weepers. The variety is awesome, and belies the myth that Elvis Costello is "Mr. Revenge and Guilt," as he ruefully puts it. Still, like most myths, this one has its reasons. He evinces, always, a burning need to connect — to startle, mock, move, touch, cut to the quick. His songs are usually short and tart. His lyrics betray a scabrous obsession with deceit, domination, untrammeled desire. Much of his music revolves around moods of bitterness and shame, rage at others and disgust with himself. He refuses to coin slogans or use sunny cliches. Sardonic, demanding, ruthlessly unsentimental — he is, by far, the most interesting figure in pop music today.
Acquired Taste: He also faces a number of problems. Three years ago, when the new wave crested and the rock avant-garde turned toward irony and flat, impersonal singing, Costello began moving in the opposite direction: toward old-fashioned soulfulness. Stranded by the changing tides of pop fashion, he's had to cope with falling record sales, the continued reluctance of Top 40 radio stations to play his music and a cult of fans weaned on punk vitriol. His voice, a refractory instrument, remains something of an acquired taste: it's become ever more nuanced and expressive, but whenever he's not simply blasting out blowtorch rock, he must struggle to soften and make supple its dry, sometimes harsh contours.
There have been personal problems as well. In 1979, he badly tarnished his reputation by getting into a drunken quarrel with some American musicians, reportedly calling Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." He publicly apologized, but then kept his own counsel. For four years he scarcely talked to the press.
That barroom incident still weighs on his mind. "I'm not a racist," he says quietly. "Any things that I was alleged to have said or possibly did say — I honestly don't remember the exact details of that fight, because I was so drunk — whatever I said, it was purely to incense those people. But there aren't any excuses for saying something like that. It indicated a lack of personal discipline."
Costello treats his fiery image as a kind of unfortunate accident, kindled by a handful of songs, sparked by his audience and fanned by the press. "Sometimes I found the audience irritating," he says. "I was torn between finding Californians amazingly glib in the way that they tried to grasp passing fashions in England and modify them to their own environment, expecting us to pat them on the back because they had some funny clothes on, and playing in the Midwest where everybody was Quaaluded out and it was like banging your head against a brick wall. For a lot of people, it was a freak show — a diversion to their normal torpor. And I found myself playing up to that, because of my annoyance. They'd bait you into being aggressive. But if that was all that I could get over — then it was a failure on my part, too."
It's a failure that Costello tries to rectify on Imperial Bedroom (Columbia) by softening the beat and stressing his lyrics. The sound is crisp, dense with detail, smartly crafted, very poppy, terribly studied: we hear "Breakfast at Tiffany's" treacle, a torch song, a brace of intricate midtempo rock ballads and one thumping anthem, called "Man Out of Time," done in the style of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." It's music to get lost in, a wily labyrinth — not a record for easy listening. The vinegar of Costello's voice makes the sweetest lines turn sour, and that's only fitting: the lyrics are a barbed valentine. At first, only a few lines stand out: "Tears before bedtime," "I feel like a boy with a problem," "There are 10 commandments of love." Slowly it becomes clear that these 15 songs constitute an oblique sort of musical exorcism. The running characters, a husband and wife, make "love tooth and nail," bicker, brood, drink, despair, he, cheat, show remorse and, above all, suffer, their besotted marriage saved only by the bleak conviction that "love and unhappiness" must "go arm in arm." "Blame it on Cain. Don't blame it on me," sang Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True, his first album. He doesn't sound so cocksure anymore.
Jackhammer Beat: These are remarkably raw sentiments to find exposed in a piece of "popular music." Perhaps that's why Costello's new material seemed to sail right past the restive young crowd at a recent concert in San Diego. During his two-hour set, he sang seven songs from Imperial Bedroom and a clutch of interesting oldies: "Wondering," the country song made famous by Webb Pierce; "I Got You (I Feel Good)," James Brown's funk classic; "Little Sister," the Elvis Presley hit, and a very pure (and very obscure) Smokey Robinson song called "From Head to Toe." What grabbed the fans, though, wasn't this homage to a tradition or the subtle new ballads. It was the jackhammer beat of "Pump It Up" — one of those angry songs out of Costello's past.
"It's a bit of a dilemma," he says. "You've got to play what they came to see. But I'm not a one-dimensional sort of paper tiger. You can make songs so crass that everyone can understand them, or complicated enough that they're interesting. I'm afraid that the preconceptions of the audience outweigh my powers of communication. Most of the time that we're onstage, I feel like a man from Mars"